Higher Ed Must Innovate Its Way Out of the Student Debt Crisis | From the Bell Tower

To solve the student debt crisis, higher education will need some serious change. So far there is limited effort in that direction, and those who can least afford high tuition will continue to bear the brunt of student debt, too often with little to show for it.
To solve the student debt crisis, higher education will need some serious change. So far there is limited effort in that direction, and those who can least afford high tuition will continue to bear the brunt of student debt, too often with little to show for it. Does higher education care more about the structure of the content it delivers than the cost of the product? That would seem to be the case, going by the reaction to some recent mainstream and media higher education news coverage. The most attention is being paid to Jeff Selingo’s Chronicle of Higher Education article about college majors and how this system needs to dramatically change. “It’s Time to End College Majors As We Know Them” advocates for eliminating existing subject-oriented majors and shifting to a system that better prepares students to respond to societal challenges, such as climate change. That recommendation led to some consternation and backlash among academics but hardly anywhere else. What did create some shock among the masses was the story of Mike Meru, an orthodontist who owes $1,060,945 in student loans. Though stories of ex-students who owe in excess of $50,000 are now all too common, Meru’s story is truly jaw dropping, as we learn his impossible to pay off loan debt will grow to $2 million in 20 years.

Just Not Worth It (For Whom?)

While a suggestion to reinvent the way the curriculum works will grab some attention, the much bigger story is the ongoing questioning of higher education’s value. Ellen Shell revives this debate in her New York Times piece, “College May Not Be Worth it Anymore.” She acknowledges that for those who can afford the tuition or reasonably pay their loans, college is still worth it. For everyone else, not so much. Her big concern is the low-income student most at risk of dropping out with a hefty loan to pay off. Shell argues that these students, mostly members of minority groups, would be better off with job training that requires no college. It’s a compounded problem because their persistent debt makes it unlikely these ex-students will ever attempt to complete their degrees. Though the majority of college students are women, they may be getting a particularly raw deal when it comes to student loan debt. According to a new study, women hold nearly two-thirds of the outstanding student debt in America, nearly $900 billion as of mid-2018. Women take on more debt than men and, owing to their lower pay for many jobs, they are much more likely to accumulate student loan debt than men in similar circumstances.

Owing a Million

For those who do graduate, crushing student debt dramatically alters their life options. That’s what makes Meru’s example quite shocking. He’s a highly paid dentist. If anyone can afford to pay off loans, it should be him. Having accumulated years’ worth of loans to get through dental school, he now finds himself paying the equivalent of a sizeable home mortgage loan payment each month in addition to the cost of his actual housing. Students in debt may have little empathy for Meru because at least he has a home. An analysis published by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York last year suggests that student debt was responsible for up to a 35 percent decline in homeownership among people between the ages of 28 and 30 from 2007 to 2015.  More than 80 percent of millennials surveyed by the National Association of Realtors and the nonprofit group American Student Assistance claimed that student debt had forced them to shelve their plans to buy a home. Despite what we hear about new generations wanting to lease rather than own, were they not overwhelmed by student debt, a substantial number of college graduates would choose to own their own home. The next generation of potential college students, knowing they may be making a choice between a college degree or home ownership, may decide on focus on the latter rather than the former.

Experimental Approaches

Another higher ed news item overshadowed by Selingo’s essay was the demise of a small but well-publicized start-up, Mission U. It closed after one year in operation. Mission’s big disruption was a college (unaccredited) degree in one year with no upfront costs. Students would pay a percentage of their income back to Mission over several years as tuition. That’s a surefire way to eliminate student debt, but critics questioned how Mission would fund its operation. Mission U’s closure is shrouded in mystery, as it was acquired by WeWork, but despite doubts about the concept, it was still a bold experimental alternative to the current broken system by which most students fund their education. While its business model was unsustainable, it calls to mind another experiment in higher education from 2012, Sebastian Thrun’s Udacity. However you judge that experiment in alternative higher education, a stated goal was to eliminate crushing student debt. Thrun believed that students should initially earn only enough college credit to find gainful employment. Then students, once employed with a source of steady income, could complete their degree without needing to go into massive debt. That’s certainly far from the traditional four-year residential experience, but for many students it’s a concept that would be life transforming.

What’s the Alternative?

I’m betting we have yet to see the end of start-ups offering non-traditional approaches to higher education focused on the reduction or eradication of student debt. Yet I would be foolish to ignore the possibility that the answer to this crisis will emerge from traditional colleges and universities. Despite a bleak outlook and the great likelihood that the mass media and higher ed pundits will continue to dwell on the diminishing value of higher education with calls for disruptive change, I remain optimistic that our leaders will develop solutions to what currently ails higher ed. Scott Cowen, president emeritus and distinguished university chair of Tulane University, is one such leader who gives me hope when he writes:
The bottom line is that there is reason to be optimistic. The naysayers and handwringers—those who predict the end of college and scorn the time spent on intellectual endeavors, personal growth, and interaction with a diversity of people—are ignoring the current wave of efforts to reform obsolete traditions, launch new initiatives, and forge a path to the future. We need to acknowledge the problems, from unequal access to runaway costs, but we also need to take notice of the myriad solutions being pursued at institutions all across the country.
In his article, “How Smaller Colleges Are Disrupting Higher Education,” Cowen gives multiple examples of colleges innovating to make higher education more accessible and affordable. Perhaps no disruptive innovation aimed at affordability is gutsier than what’s happening in Tennessee right now, as the state offers two free years of community college. Other states and cities are exploring the possibilities of tuition-free college as well. What’s less well understood about all of these efforts at low-cost or free higher education is how costly operations like academic libraries are funded—or even made available. Mission U is a model in which libraries are nonexistent. Academic libraries, in the future, may be a luxury only the best resourced institutions can afford. It’s not clear where higher education is headed, but it must find ways to help students avoid crushing debt. Failure to do so will drive even more Americans away from the benefits accrued from advanced education.
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From my academic library post, with contacts across various types of institutions of higher ed, I am seeing a bifurcation in the higher ed sector similar to that seen in society as a whole. The economic data has shown without doubt that flat wages for the majority have caused a hollowing out of the middle class in America and this is being reflected in our college options.. In higher education, I am seeing that prestigious research universities (Ivies and near-Ivies) with large endowments and reputations that attract students who can afford to pay, are doing just fine. At the public college level, there are some steps happening, such as New York's Excelsior scholarship, that make me think that public demand may begin to restore the funding long cut from state school systems and make public college tuition affordable to the masses again. Meanwhile, small private institutions that don't have famous names are struggling to attract students; several have already closed. At public colleges and smaller private ones alike there is a real push to drive students toward online classes supposedly geared to the working adult learner. Combine these trends, and what we may soon end up with will be a traditional, arts and sciences based, classroom based model at the high end selective research universities, funded by wealthy American and foreign students, and a largely online, vocationally oriented model offered by public colleges and universities for everyone else. Those who can afford four years of personal growth and intellectual development will get it, everyone else will get a glorified trade school mainly designed to teach immediately marketable skills with as little personal attention as possible. As for academic libraries, you are correct in that they will do just fine at the high end research universities, while being slashed to the bone elsewhere, public and private alike. It is already happening.

Posted : Jun 18, 2018 08:55



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